Edward Snowden has given an interview to The New Yorker, in which he adamantly denies any connection to Russian intelligence agencies — something Representative Mike Rogers alleged earlier this week was “likely.” The claim, Snowden says, is “absurd.”
Instead, Snowden says that in his operation, stealing hundreds of thousands of classified documents and running off to China, and then Russia, he “clearly and unambiguously acted alone, with no assistance from anyone, much less a government.”
“It won’t stick,” he told Jane Mayer. “Because it’s clearly false, and the American people are smarter than politicians think they are.” He argued that he wouldn’t have gone to Hong Kong first if he were dealing with the Russians, and wondered aloud why he would have spent weeks stuck in a Moscow airport if he were in league with Russian security services. “Spies get treated better than that,” he says. (Not Russian ones, maybe.)
But The New Yorker’s readers are hopefully smarter than Jane Mayer thinks they are. The piece notes that a reputable Russian newspaper reported months ago that Snowden visited the country’s consulate while in Hong Kong, but cites Snowden’s legal adviser saying, “Every news organization in the world has been trying to confirm that story. They haven’t been able to, because it’s false.”
That specific allegation could be — but the premise, that Snowden had no contact with the Russian government before showing up at their dacha step, is false. The New Yorker doesn’t mention that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, said in an interview back in September that Snowden met with Russian diplomats in Hong Kong, and that Putin was personally informed of the meeting. The idea, then, that he ended up in Russia “with no assistance from anyone, much less a government,” isn’t accurate. WikiLeaks — whose association with the Russian government is pretty clear — in fact released a statement that Snowden was headed for a country where his safety could be guaranteed, as soon as he and a WikiLeaks employee left Chinese airspace on an Aeroflot flight. Oddly, Mayer seems more interested in letting Snowden deny the accusation than offering her readers a fair representation of what we know.
Why might Russian security services have been involved in Snowden’s operation at various points? They have much to gain: Snowden’s work has substantially diminished America’s reputation around the world, especially in Europe — never a bad thing for Russia. Moreover, by making much of the U.S.’s signals-intelligence public, it renders it much less effective anywhere, including against Russia and its agents.
Most important, now that Snowden is in the country and under Russian-government protection, the countries’ spies now have access to all of the information he stole, not just what media organizations have chosen to report — whether Snowden wants to give it to them or not.
The Russians have even gained in counterintuitive ways: The revelations that many in the West are happy Snowden made — about the ways in which U.S. intelligence monitors Internet activity abroad — have been used by Russian intelligence as a pretext for massively expanding their own domestic-surveillance capabilities. Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist who specializes in intelligence matters, explained in a recent op-ed (translation via John Schindler, a Naval War College professor):
For journalists, human rights activists, and ordinary people, Snowden became a hero, eclipsing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. But in Russia, unfortunately, Snowden’s revelations led mainly to negative consequences. They gave the Russian authorities carte blanche to regulate the Internet and provided a formal pretext for an onslaught on Internet giants like Google and Facebook.
Last summer, as soon as Snowden had published his first revelations about American surveillance on the Internet, an offensive against global platforms began in Russia, on the pretext of protecting our compatriots’ personal data. Initiatives designed to place Google, Facebook, and others totally under the oversight of the Russian special services are being put forward in the State Duma by Deputy Sergey Zheleznyak and in the Federation Council by Senator Ruslan Gattarov.
The aim is to make the Internet giants site their servers in Russian territory and store Russian users’ information only here. In that event all the information that we post on social networks or that is transmitted through global mail services, messengers, or video chat rooms will automatically become accessible to the Russian interception system, SORM (Operational and Investigative Measures System, i.e. domestic SIGINT). The FSB, the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs), and six other special services have access to it.
The system for the interception of Internet traffic and mobile communications in our country is not overseen by anyone except the special services. Although formally in order to intercept citizens’ information a staffer of the special services must obtain a court permit, he is not obliged to show it to anyone except his superior officer. The system is organized technically in such a way that no telecommunications operator or Internet provider can know what information the special services are intercepting or in what quantity – it is all in the hands of the officer who sits at the control panel and himself enters the data of those who are to be monitored.
As Snowden made clear to the whole world, it was for precisely this kind of unsupervised access to communications that the NSA needed to create all the cunning programs like PRISM, and that is what the NSA is now having to justify. But in our country unsupervised access by the special services to traffic was provided for from the outset and this suits our special services completely.